A friend recently asked me how to shift his career to UX. He told me he wants to be a user researcher.
This surprised me because most people in his position want to become a UX designer, not a researcher. I asked him why he wanted to go directly into user research. He told me:
I looked into the UX field, and I don’t think I’d be good at the design part of UX. I don’t have experience with graphic design or industrial design. My background is in ethnographic studies and survey studies. I think I’ll be better at user research because I already do market research for a living.
I told him his background could serve him well in user research. However, I encouraged him to become a UX generalist instead of becoming a researcher right away.
I explained how being a generalist could benefit him. I also said he might sell himself short and miss out on opportunities if he focused only on research.
All Medical Doctors Receive Generalist Training First
We can look to the medical field to see how becoming a generalist first prepares you for your career.
As Jared Spool explains in this article, to become a medical doctor, you first receive general training in medicine. So by the time a cardiologist becomes a cardiologist, she doesn’t just know about the human heart. She understands all the parts and systems of the human body.
Similarly, when you start your UX career as a generalist, you understand the wide array of UX disciplines. You can apply your broad knowledge to every design decision you make throughout a project.
The Benefits of Becoming a UX Generalist First
By becoming a generalist first, you broaden your UX expertise, you make yourself more hirable, and you learn what you may want to specialize in later.
You’ll Broaden Your Expertise
Most successful UX professionals I know have a background in multiple areas of UX. They can contribute to a project from start to finish, using their large toolbox of skills to complete each phase of the project.
For example, at the start of the project, they conduct stakeholder interviews, conduct research to understand the design problem, and present results of what they learned to decision makers. Then, they continue the project by developing prototypes, testing and iterating on those prototypes, and finalizing the design with the team.
When you contribute to the many areas of UX design (and there are many), you gain a well-rounded foundation of experience in UX. That foundation equips you to produce good design work throughout your career, even if you specialize later.
Most UX Jobs are Generalist Jobs
Most UX jobs are for generalist positions. Roughly 75% of UX positions I see are for designers with a wide range of skills.
Some large UX teams have a mix of generalists and specialists. Even when these teams include specialists, there are usually more generalists than specialists on the team.
Gaining a broad skill set in UX design will make you more marketable for the majority of UX jobs out there, which are generalist jobs.
You’re More Marketable as a Generalist when Shifting Your Career to UX
UX career shifters often start in generalist roles. It’s rare that someone new to UX design will specialize.
Most companies who hire specialists, such as user researchers or content strategists, will look for candidates who have significant experience in those areas. Organizations are less likely to hire you for a specialist role if you’re in the early stages of your career.
Since most entry-level UX positions are generalist roles, you’re more likely to land your first UX job if you have a range of UX knowledge.
You’re More Marketable Later as a Senior UX Professional
A generalist skill set doesn’t just make you more hirable at the beginning of your career. It makes you hirable throughout your entire career, especially when the job market is tight.
Imagine you’ve been a UX designer for ten years, and you spent most of your career as a generalist. Now, there’s an economic downturn, and you’re trying to find a new job. Most of the available UX jobs will be generalist positions. When the economy is down, companies usually cut back on specialists and rely on generalists to do the work.
If you have a generalist background, you’ll find it easier to get a job because you have a wide range of skills. Even if you choose to specialize later in your career, you can revert to your generalist skill set if you need to.
You’ll Learn What You Might Want to Specialize in Later
The more you learn about UX, the more you’ll understand where you may want to specialize.
“Should I be a generalist or a specialist?” is the wrong question.
The right question is “Should I specialize after I become a generalist?”
When you learn a breadth of UX skills, you’ll learn what interests you most about UX design.
For example, you may go into your career thinking you’ll eventually become a user researcher. But as you acquire UX skills, you might fall in love with content strategy instead.
I recommend you give yourself the opportunity to learn as much as you can about UX before deciding if you’ll specialize. You may be surprised by what areas of UX you enjoy most. Or, you may find you enjoy being a generalist, and you’ll want to do a range of UX work throughout your career.
Most Good Specialists Started as Generalists
In Jamal Nichols’ article, “Design / UX: Specialists vs Generalists — What’s Better?,” Jamal says most UX professionals who write books and speak at conferences are specialists. He says specialists are the people who move the industry forward.
That’s a fair point. Many industry experts who push UX forward are specialists.
Also, as Jamal states in the article, most specialists begin as generalists. Many of our industry’s top experts started their careers as generalists, making them well-rounded designers with a strong foundation in UX.
Even if your goal is to become a specialist who writes books or speaks at conferences someday, learning a generalist skill set now will equip you to meet that goal.
A Wide UX Skill Set is a Benefit, Not a Detriment
Like many topics within the UX field, the topic of becoming a UX generalist or a specialist is a controversial one.
A common argument I hear is, “If you’re a generalist, then you’re a jack of trades and a master of none.” The statement implies that if you learn a little bit of everything, you won’t excel at anything.
I don’t agree with this viewpoint. You can produce quality design work without being a specialist.
For example, consider my skill set. I’m not a specialist in information architecture, and I know enough about card sorting to do it during a project. I’m not a full-time user researcher, and I can plan and moderate effective usability tests. I’m not a content strategist, and I can write quality content that meets the needs of the business and the user.
You don’t need to be a specialist in one area to be a good designer. And as I mentioned above, the more UX skills you have, the more UX work you can do on the job. That makes you desirable to many UX hiring managers.
Being a Generalist Benefitted My Career—And My Students’ Careers
I consider myself a generalist who became a specialist in UX education. I’m now a faculty member at Center Centre, the UX design school.
I’ve also seen how much a generalist skill set benefits my students. We intentionally designed our program to prepare well-rounded UX generalists. My students take 24 core courses in UX design, plus additional special topics and directed topics courses.
After graduation, my students got to work right away at their UX jobs. One of our graduates told us she was involved in multiple projects at her new position, using many skills she learned at Center Centre, starting on day one. She was even moderating usability studies and leading meetings during her first week.
Her broad background in UX allowed her to jump into projects and get to work right away, doing many things on multiple projects.
What If You Have an Opportunity to Start Your Career as a Specialist?
Beginning your UX journey as a generalist is a wise decision. But what if you have the opportunity to interview for a specialist position when shifting your career?
It’s rare, but you may find yourself entering the UX field as a specialist. If you have the opportunity to interview for a specialist position, take the opportunity. If you receive a job offer for the position, consider accepting the offer.
Breaking into the UX field is difficult. So don’t turn down a specialist job offer because I recommend you be a generalist first. Be open to opportunities and decide what’s best for you.
Go Forth and Learn Many UX Skills
Learning a diverse array of UX skills will benefit you now, and it will set you up for success later in your career.
In his article, “You Have to Be a UX Generalist First,” Matt Eng shares how being a generalist helped him as a designer:
By starting out with such broad exposure, I eventually learned where I could best contribute my skills, where I should specialize, and what I need to continue studying.
You don’t have to become a specialist to be a successful UX designer. I know many UX generalists who do fantastic work. They bring value to their organizations and their users without focusing on one area.
So go forth and become a generalist. There’s a ton to learn in this field. Start learning now and see where your curiosity takes you.
Thanks to Chen Zhang for his input on this article.